On the whole, which individual is safer and more secure — a Christian in a secular society or a secularist in a Christian society?
History has shown time and again that, when religious perspectives are barred from the public square, the resulting vacuum is filled with, in the words of Father Richard John Neuhaus, “a new religion of utopian, destructive and dehumanizing proportions.”
Past attempts to build a society around man-made morals have resulted in “the heaping up of corpses and the loosing of rivers of blood without precedent in all human history,” said Father Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of First Things magazine, in a recent lecture.
Case in point: the present situation in China. Shortly after taking control of China in 1948, the Communists made it known there would be no place for religion in the new order. Not only was all political power to radiate from Beijing, but Mao Zedong asserted that the Communist Party was also to be the embodiment of all moral order in the country. The party would not tolerate the existence of competing sources of allegiance in the moral sphere. The Catholic Church was singled out as an especially egregious threat since its adherents looked to an easily identifiable person and place — the pope in Rome — rather than the chairman in Beijing.
Initially, the party's strategy involved vast, violent purges of Chinese believers and the imprisonment, torture and expulsion of foreign missionaries. But, after two years of such blatant persecution, Beijing concluded that the Christian churches were simply being driven underground and that they could not be destroyed by such means. So the Communists changed their strategy. They began setting up competing churches, strictly controlled by the party, in an attempt to co-opt believers' fidelity. To this day, these state-run “Patriotic Association” churches are the only churches allowed to exist, and the only ones in which Chinese Christians are permitted to worship.
Under China's legal system, police have the authority to send suspects of banned religious organizations to labor camps for up to three years — without trial.
Of course, exceptions to the rule of law in China are not uncommon. The archbishop of Shanghai, Ignatius Kung Pin-mei, for example, spent 30 years in jail, most of it in solitary confinement. His crime? He refused to renounce the Roman Catholic Church and publicly criticized the Chinese regime's repression of religious freedom. (Archbishop Kung, who died last year in the United States, was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1979 while Kung was still in prison.)
Last year, the U.S. State Department listed China, along with Sudan, as having the worst human-rights record in the world, thanks primarily to its terrible treatment of religious believers.
Yet the U.S. Congress didn't do any favors for persecuted religious believers in China when they approved, last September, a policy of permanent, normal trade relations with communist China. Once the trade-status question was off the table, Beijing launched what has become the most savage religious persecution since the death of Chairman Mao in 1976.
In December, for example, it was reported that more than 1,500 house churches, temples and shrines in the eastern province of Zhejiang had been shut down or destroyed.
Bad as the treatment of Christians has been, it has been members of the Falun Gong who have been the target of Beijing's most ferocious repression. It is hard to imagine what could possibly be threatening about the Falun Gong, which mixes watered-down Buddhist theology, Taoist principles and breathing exercises to promote health. Its popularity in China, and the fact that it operates outside strict government control, seem to be enough to make it a threat to the repressive Beijing regime. According to a Hong Kong-based human-rights monitoring group, somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 Falun Gong followers have been placed in labor camps. Scores have died while in police custody.
On January 23, five devotees of the Falun Gong set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square to protest the crack-down. In a sharp break with the policy of the Clinton administration, the United States' new secretary of state, Colin Powell, warned the Chinese ambassador that the Bush administration would not hesitate to raise Beijing's poor record on human rights and do it “frankly.”
“We call on China,” he said Jan. 24, “to release all those detained or imprisoned for peacefully exercising their internationally recognized rights to freedom of religion, freedom of belief and freedom of conscience.”
Outraged at the comment, Beijing lashed back the next day, describing the remarks as “totally unacceptable.” “China demands that the U.S. government respect the stand of the Chinese government on the Falun Gong and stop interfering in China's internal affairs,” said a spokesman for China's foreign ministry.
It is a heartening sign for people of faith around the world that the Bush administration appears to understand that religious rights are not incidental. They are a core freedom which must be respected by individuals and protected by governments.
Throughout history, freedom of religion has been among the foundational freedoms recognized by governments that have gone on to compile good human-rights records. We may sometimes forget how fortunate we are to live in a society built on the Judeo-Christian principle of respect for the conscience of the individual. We should never take our situation for granted, or cease praying for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are deprived of such privilege.
J. Fraser Field, executive officer of the Catholic Educators Resource Center (http://www.catholiceducation.org), writes from Powell River, British Columbia.